How Does the Philippines Balance itself between US and China?
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. (Photo: AP)
By Xianqing He

How Does the Philippines Balance itself between US and China?

May. 02, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. visited China between March 18-21, 2019. During his visit, Locsin said that the Philippines would consolidate mutual political trust with China, deepen cooperation in various fields, and jointly explore ways to promote maritime cooperation, peace and stability and continuously push for new progress in the Philippine-China relations. The Chinese side also expressed its willingness to focus on promoting the four areas and stepping up Philippine-China relations to a new level.


In addition, in early March, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s response to the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who preached the China Threat theory in the South China Sea (SCS) and the promise that the United States would provide the Philippines with security, was slightly “cold”. However, things quickly reversed.


Since April, the Philippine government has been more critical of China’s actions in the Spratlys area. For example, the Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo stated that the Philippine side has never shelved the SCS arbitration award made by the International Tribunal at the Hague in 2016 and urged the Chinese government to respect that. Locsin also said that if there is obvious aggression in the SCS, the Philippines can turn to its only ally the United States for help.


These discourses implied that the Philippines is neither pro-China nor pro-US. In fact, it is more likely to maintain a dynamic balance between China and the United States.


The history of Philippine-China relations since the end of the Cold War suggested that the two countries have endured a rocky relationship due to the dispute over the sovereignty of the SCS and maritime rights and interests. Though the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century saw generally stable relations, the two countries were troubled by the territorial disputes in the SCS. The most typical example is the incident at Ren’ai Reef (Second Thomas Shoal) in 1999 and the incident in 2003 that the Philippines claimed to have removed Chinese-marked Chinese characters placed on a Spratly Islands reef, causing China and the Philippines to renew their disputes.


In addition, when the Philippine government needs to shift attention away from its domestic affairs, it usually uses the Spratlys dispute as a tool. The Aquino III government launched the arbitration case which seriously injured Philippine-China relations. At that time, with the support of the US, the Philippines tried to discredit China with the remarks that China’s militarization in the SCS endangered peace and China did not abide by international laws. Since Rodrigo Duterte came to power, he has exercised restraint on the SCS dispute in accordance with the needs of domestic development, and has corrected the radical policies adopted by the Aquino III government. As a result, the relations between the two countries have been significantly improved economically, commercially and politically. 


The Philippines sometimes maintains close relations with the United States, and sometimes dilutes the SCS disputes and strengthen political and economic ties with China. It can be seen that the Philippines is maintaining a dynamic balance between China and the United States, and is avoiding to completely fall to one side in the balance of the Sino-US game.


The following reasons may explain the Philippine’s balancing act between America and China:


From the perspective of regional security and economic structure, the Philippines can neither get rid of its security dependence on the United States nor completely get rid of its economic dependence on China. On one hand, as a military ally of the Philippines, the United States’ security guarantees are an important pillar for the Philippines’ security. In addition, most of the imports and updates of Philippines’s weapons come from the United States. At present, the United States is actively promoting the “Indo-Pacific strategy”, focusing on politics, economy and military. The United States will continue to shore up its relationship with the Philippines.

The essence of the Philippine’s pro-China policy is to correct the pro-US policy by the previous government, so as to prevent toppling the balance of the trilateral relations among China, the Philippines and the United States, and detracting from the interests of the Philippines.

On the other hand, in 2017, China became the Philippines’ largest trade partner. In recent years, political trust and economic and trade cooperation between the countries have been increasingly strengthened. The implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative has brought excellent development opportunities for the Philippines, needing to improve its domestic infrastructure, people’s livelihood and welfare, and construct industrial parks.


Thus, the Philippines is unable to get rid of its dependence on the United States and China, and is also unlikely to take side. When it is out of balance between United States and China, the Philippines will immediately adjust and create a relative balance. The essence of Duterte’s China policy is a good example; it rectifies the Aquino III government’s excessive dependence on the United States. However, the Duterte government did not explicitly abandon the SCS arbitral award results, nor did it dilute the military interaction with the United States. If the Philippines find that tipping toward China may lead to a loss in the Philippine-US relations, it may change from pro-China to pro-America.


The Philippines is sensitive and vulnerable to its dependence on China and the US. The dependence on the United States for security is an asymmetric dependency. The national security of Philippines relies greatly on the US-Philippine military alliance. However, the Philippines is only a part of the US’ Asia-Pacific alliance system. Although playing an important role, it is obviously not irreplaceable. In the US’ Asia-Pacific alliance system, there are still many countries for the US to choose from. On the contrary, the Philippine does not have much choice.


The Philippines’ economic dependence on China is also an asymmetric dependency. China is the Philippines’ largest trading partner, accounting for a large proportion of the Philippines’ foreign trade, while the Philippines accounts for a small proportion of China’s foreign trade. In addition, the Philippines also relies on Chinese investment to improve domestic infrastructure and people’s livelihood.


Therefore, there are obviously fewer options for Philippines. As a result, a balancing act between the US and China is more conducive to the realization of the interests of the Philippines.


According to the analysis above, the essence of the Philippine’s pro-China policy is to correct the pro-US policy by the previous government, so as to prevent toppling the balance of the trilateral relations among China, the Philippines and the United States, and detracting from the interests of the Philippines. Currently, although the friendly Philippine-China relations will continue, the Duterte government has not reduced its interaction with the United States.


Above all, we can conclude that Philippine-China relations is in uncertainty. In addition, there may be two incidents that are going to hamper the relations. Firstly, the Philippines is approaching its mid-term elections in 2019. It may mobilize or cater to nationalist sentiment by stirring the South China Sea issue. Secondly, the United States has carried out “coercion and inducement” against the Philippines. On one hand, it reaffirmed the US-Philippines alliance treaty and emphasized the role of the United States in the security agenda of the Philippines. On the other hand, it has also built a community of interests between the United States and the Philippines. To avoid excessive economic dependence on China, this has created a certain diplomatic space for the Philippines. For China, the most urgent task at present is to prevent the Philippines from leaning towards the US, which will in turn lead to an imbalance of the trilateral relations.


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